Elizabeth "Bessie" Coleman

The Original “Fly Girl”

By Ken Hare
Chicago Defender Staff Writer

images (4)When most people hear the term “fly girl” immediately, In Living Color comes to mind. The comedy sketch show produced by the “first family” of comedy – the Wayan brothers – aired on Fox TV from 1990 -1994. The groundbreaking series helped launch the careers of actors Jamie Fox, Jim Carey and Fly Girl dancers Carrie Ann Inaba (Dancing with the Stars judge) and Jennifer Lopez (singer/songwriter).

However, long before there were fly girl dancers, there was a literal, living, breathing fly girl named, Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman. Bessie Coleman was born January 26, 1892, in Atlanta, Texas to sharecroppers, George and Susan Coleman. One of 13 children, she attended the Missionary Baptist Church for her early childhood education and went on to attend Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University (Langston University), where she eventually dropped out due to financial reasons.

Around 1915, at age 23, Coleman moved to Chicago to live with her brothers and took a job as a manicurist to support herself. She eventually would come to be inspired by the tales of WW1 pilots by listening to the radio and reading the Chicago Defender newspaper. Coleman acted on her inspiration and decided to enroll in aviation school which was unheard of at the time for a woman, yet alone a Black one.

Cloaked in separatism, both gender and racial, and topped with discrimination; no American school would admit her. So she did what any determined Black woman would do when presented a challenge. She found a way. Her level of achievement is nothing short of phenomenal. And her ability to think outside the box is remarkable.

Bessie’s Fix

To remedy her situation she decided to teach herself French, move to France and enrolled in the prestigious French aviation school – Caudron Brother School of Aviation. In less than 8 months, the former manicurist completed the education and became a licensed pilot. Thus, Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman is the first original Fly Girl. She became known in history as the first, female, African-American/Native American pilot in the United States, as well as internationally.

Tomorrow, Coleman’s legacy is making a stop in Chicago as the Take Flight Leadership Aviation – Fly Girls, Bessie Coleman Chapter, from Denver, Colorado makes an appearance at her namesake library. The not-for-profit is a group of young women aviators who continue on with the legacy of flying, in Ms. Coleman’s honor.

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Bessie Coleman Mixed Media by Artist Jacqueline Withers

As part of the 37th Annual Fly-Over and Tribute, Jacqueline Withers, founder of “Fly Girls” educates youth about “Queen Bess,” as the first black woman aviator to dazzle audiences with her stunt flying. Withers will showcase a series of original mixed-media murals that she created to commemorate Bessie‘s life. The 4 X 9 feet painting uses acrylic-on-tarp canvas to create a vivid collage of photos, drawings, and calligraphy to tell the story of the first African-American female pilot and the legacy of young aviators left in her wake. Coleman’s famous message, “refuse to take no for an answer,” dominates the theme of the brightly colored pieces.

As part of the library celebration, the Chicago Chapters of Original Tuskegee Airmen (OTA) and Tuskegee Airmen, Incorporated (TAI) partnered with the organization and plans to fly over the grave of Bessie Coleman in the Lincoln Cemetery in Chicago in tribute to female aviation pioneers.

First Assistant Manager of the Bessie Coleman Library, Deborah Burns expressed gratitude for the artwork which was donated at the sole expense of Withers. “She [Withers] is truly a remarkable woman, and her work to spread the history of Bessie Coleman is commendable,” she said.

Withers, who was diagnosed several weeks ago with a rare hormonal cancer called “pheochromocytoma” said “This artwork saved my life” and despite being immediately scheduled for surgery, she didn’t want to miss this celebration. “It was important for me to be here, to show these girls that you can achieve your goals. And don’t let anything get in your way.”

Join Ms. Withers and the surprise actress who will be in attendance. The free event takes place tomorrow 4/30/16 at the Bessie Coleman Library, 731 E. 63rd Chicago, IL from 10 am to 12 noon. The TFLA/Fly Girls, not-for-profit accepts donations for support. Email jacqueline_withers@yahoo.com for more information.

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